A view of state's past, through a car window

jbordsen@charlotteobserver.comDecember 29, 2012 

  • The Lew Powell collection Lew Powell delivered the travel decals earlier this month along with “several hundred items” that are being catalogued and added to the Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library at UNC-Chapel Hill. Linda Jacobson, keeper of the Powell collection, says the items are not yet on display, but “if a visitor asked to see them we would be happy to bring them out.” The Special Collections Library at UNC-Chapel Hill is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays; 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday; and 1-5 p.m. Sunday. It is closed on university holidays and on weekends preceding a Monday holiday or following a Friday holiday. Info: 919-962-3765 or lib.unc.edu

In 35 years at The Charlotte Observer, the now-retired Lew Powell accumulated a trove of minutiae – some of historical significance, some of the “world’s largest two-headed cow” variety. This month, Powell donated a different kind of trove to the Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library at UNC-Chapel Hill: About 40 travel decals from around the state, the kind vacationers once bought and affixed to their rear or side windows to show where they’d been.

Though a coast-to-coast novelty item from the 1940s through the ’60s, they are as rare today as the Fairlanes and Bel Airs they once adorned.

Powell estimates there were perhaps 60 decals over the years that depicted Tar Heel destinations. He acquired most of his via eBay or collector sites online.

Unlike the stickers you see these days – the faux-European white ovals holding letters abbreviating a city – the classic ones looked far from generic: These are visually dramatic and colorful graphics. Their whole cartoon-simple point was to attract attention to the fact that you indeed had visited places like Santa Claus Land, Linville Falls, Ocracoke Island or White Lake.

While Powell may have been to such places, he confesses to never having had such decals on his cars.

“It’s about a different kind of tourism than there is now,” he says of their appeal. “They’re about North Carolina and how its tourist attractions saw themselves and wanted to be seen around the country. They speak of a time and place.”

Lew Powell posts regularly at N.C. Miscellany: lib.unc.edu/blogs/ncm

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